October 28, 2020

I was reading an article the other day in JAMA Pediatrics about how patients that didn’t speak English had more complications in the hospital than patients that spoke English. 

I mean, much worse….These children were twice as likely to have an adverse outcome during their hospital stay than families who spoke English. The biggest group were the families that primarily spoke Spanish. 

At first you think, “How can this be?” Don’t hospitals just treat a patient’s illness? Isn’t this enough? The answer is a big NO.

When talking about medical care, nothing is more important than a complete medical history. Asking someone what they are feeling, what happened and what they have done so far is the most important part of medical care. 

Of course, the physical exam is important, and does not require a translator, but the history will often help a physician focus their efforts on a specific part of the physical exam. 

Add to this the fact that from the history you can pick up on underlying concerns from tone of voice and body language and there is so much that is left undisclosed when someone doesn’t speak English in a primarily English-speaking medical establishment. 

Can you imagine how frustrating? Being on the other side of this? Trying to communicate how you feel and knowing that the other person does NOT understand you? This can really feel scary, especially when you’re talking about your health. But what about everything else? 

What about when you’re buying a house or trying to explain something to your bank? What about when you’re worried about your child’s education and you’re trying to explain this to their teacher? I can go on and on but I think you understand. When you don’t speak the language of the person that you NEED to speak to the results can be heart-breaking. 

I bring this up today because I remember being a young child and having little interest in learning my parent’s native language of Spanish. I wanted so desperately to just blend in that Spanish was really the last thing on my radar. 

Fast forward to my first job as a doctor and I found myself in a clinic that served a primarily 90 % hispanic population. At first I struggled, since I learned medical terms in English and felt more comfortable with English, this resulted in me drawing  A LOT of pictures to get my point across! 

What I learned was that when someone knows that you speak their language, their whole demeanor changes. They feel relaxed, understood and this will increase their compliance and their confidence in their care. 

Who you are, the color of your skin, your cultural background and your ability to speak different languages will be the special way that you will connect with others in whatever business you decide to pursue. 

Never be ashamed of who you are or where you came from. If your family speaks a different language, share it with pride and teach your kids to speak that language at home. 

We need to help kids understand that who they are, the languages they speak and the cultures they are raised in will provide them with unique opportunities in the future to connect with others in a special way. It should never be something they are ashamed of. 

Help your kids by:

  • Sharing stories of your family’s past
  • Speaking your native language at home
  • Asking them to write letters to family members in their native language
  • Cooking foods and practicing traditions that remind them of their heritage. Have them research more of these and experiment!
  • Visit restaurants or stores that incorporate your traditions

Now more than ever we need to help our children to grow up proud of who they are and where they came from. In the future we will be more connected as a society and we need people from ALL cultures to connect with others on a deeper level. Language enables this in whatever career they may choose. 

So the next time you find yourself in a situation where you don’t speak the language, hold your head up high, ask for a translator or bring someone with you that you trust to translate for you. 

If you’re on the other side and you see that someone does not speak English, offer a translator or consider having them make a phone call to a friend or family member that can help them to express themselves. I know that it’s an extra step, but for the person it will mean everything. 

As always, share your comments! I love hearing from you and would love to hear about ways that your family embraces tradition and languages. Remember, you are not alone on your parenting journey! Share with someone you know that needs some parenting support!

Have a wonderful week! 

Stay Healthy, 

Elizabeth Vainder, M.D. 

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